Lada split on whether new Niva should be farmers’ friend or urban SUV

Lada’s concept previews the replacement for the Niva.

Lada and Land Rover are entirely disparate brands with a common problem — how to replace an off-roader that stuck around for so long that it has become irretrievably wound up in the brand image. For Land Rover, the soul searching ends next year with the launch of the new Defender.

For Russia’s Lada, the journey to replace the Niva (badged simply 4×4 in its home market) began officially last month at the Moscow auto show with the unveiling of the 4×4 Vision — a concept showing how a new version could look.

Within the Renault-owned company, however, management is split on whether it should continue to be the farmers’ friend, or a funky urban SUV with occasional mud-plugging skills

“You can’t simply replace a car that’s 40 years old — it’s the same problem Land Rover has with Defender,” Steve Mattin, the Brit in charge of Lada’s design, said on the show’s sidelines. “The world has changed. The regulations have changed. Manufacturing techniques have changed. The customer has changed.”

The tiny 3-door 4×4 is over 40 years old. Launched in Soviet Russia in 1977, it has long outlived the three-box, Fiat-based sedan that was Lada’s other staple. Despite its wheezy 1.7-liter engine, cramped interior and design quirks (the spare wheel sits under the hood), the Lada 4×4 still sells in phenomenal numbers. It was Russia’s 14th best-selling model in the first seven months of the year — mostly to rural customers who value its simplicity, cheapness and phenomenal off-road ability. It accounts for 30 percent of Lada’s exports, mostly to former Soviet countries, but also to European markets such as Germany.

The 4×4 Vision borrows lots of cues from the current 4×4, but it also uses the striking X-motifs that adorn current Ladas, and, overall, its modernity is a world apart from the model it will replace.

Mattin is convinced the brand needs to target a new buyer with the production car. Make it too much of a hardcore off-roader and you alienate the biggest customer — the SUV-loving urban middle class.

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